Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mormon Temples: What Happens in a Temple?

(This is part of a series of posts on Mormon temples)

In my last post, I talked about how temples are special, sacred spaces, and how special preparation is required to enter the temple. Because the general population may not enter the temple and because Mormons don’t talk a lot about the temple out of reverence for it, people outside of the church are left to speculate about what goes on there. In this post, I want to give a picture of what the temple experience is like. This is a unique aspect of being a Mormon and plays a significant role in what we think about God and the purpose of our life.

The first thing that Mormons do when entering the temple is change into white clothing. White clothing is worn for all temple ordinances, white being a symbol of purity, light, heaven, etc. The clothing is uniform in appearance, so there is an increased feeling of equality and unity. In the temple, there are no social strata – everyone is equal regardless of wealth, status, or even position in the church. Once in the temple, by chance, I sat next to an apostle (a top authority in the church), and it was interesting for me to observe him dressed the same as I was and going through the same rituals. It would have been impossible for anyone to distinguish us if they didn’t already know who he was. Wearing white clothing also lends to a feeling of the special holiness of the temple, a place apart from the world.

All communications in the temple are in hushed tones. The closest thing I can compare it to is a library. Young children are generally not found there, so the quietness of the place is another thing that sets it apart from other places we might be.

The primary purpose of the temple is to provide a sacred place for special ordinances, or rites. Mormons believe these ordinances are needed to enter heaven, so there is a great importance attached to them. Each ordinance has a covenant associated with it; that is, there is a promise that the participant makes in connection with the ordinance. The covenant is a two-way promise, God promising certain blessings to the people who make and keep their end of the covenant. The substance of these covenants is essentially that the individual will do their very best to follow God all the time, and to devote themselves completely to the cause of building up his kingdom. Initially, Mormons perform these ordinances for themselves, then they return to the temple and perform them on behalf of others who have died without the benefit of receiving the same ordinances.

Ordinances performed in the temple are: Baptisms (on behalf of deceased ancestors), Washing and Anointing (symbolic), the Endowment, and Sealing (Marriage). Everyone is clothed for these ordinances (some people ask about that) and each one is a set ritual that is the same every time. When a Mormon attends the temple to receive ordinances for the first time, the ordinance of washing and anointing and the Endowment are typically performed in succession on the same visit to the temple. The brief ordinance of Washing and Anointing is symbolic and emphasizes the idea that a person is setting themselves apart from the world to be a follower of God. The Endowment is about 90 minutes of instruction, teaching about the purpose of life, the commandments one must live by, and the specific things a person must know to return to the presence of God. The Sealing (or marriage) ordinance is a brief marriage ceremony performed as a capstone of all the previous ordinances.

The sealing ordinance itself is special in that it must be performed by a person known as a “sealer” who has been given the power to “seal on earth and in heaven”. The significance of this is that marriages performed by a sealer may extend beyond death into eternity. The number of sealers in the church is not published, but I estimate there is one sealer for every 10,000 members of the church. Their duties are relegated to the temple and performing ordinances there. Leaders of congregations (bishops) do not have the sealing power. They may perform civil marriages in a church, but they do not have the authority to perform sealings (or “Eternal Marriages”) in the temple.

There are special rooms in the temples for each one of the ordinances. Here are some examples:

Baptismal Font

Endowment Room

Sealing Room

The central room of the temple is the “Celestial Room”, which exists there as a symbol of heaven:

Celestial Room

No ordinances are performed in the celestial room. Instead, Mormons come here to pray and to meditate, often after finishing and endowment. These rooms are completely quiet and peaceful. For myself, I can say it is a delight to have a place like this to come to and be away from worldly cares and to draw my mind to spiritual things.

In addition to ordinances rooms, temples have offices in them for administering the daily workings of the temple. There are also meeting rooms which are occasionally used by a congregation to meet for a special event. These meetings are similar to church meetings, where there are prayers, hymns, and sermons. Large temples may also have laundries and even a place for temple patrons to eat. (Sometimes temples are not only filled with a reverent atmosphere, but also the wonderful aromas of cooking food. J)

As I hope you can see, temples and temple activities are unique, sacred and special to Mormons. In my next post, I will talk about how the temple and its activities affect the daily life of a Mormon. As always, please feel free to send me questions about Mormons or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and I will try to put up some thoughtful answers in my blog.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What I believe about Christmas

"I believe in science."

- Esqueleto  (Nacho Libre)

I have a father who taught various sciences at the local state university.   I grew up peering through telescopes & microscopes, catching bugs, playing with chemicals, etc.   I associated with other science professors and their children and was commonly found hanging out at the natural history museum.    All this activity and curiosity with science led me eventually to MIT, where I studied materials engineering and solid state physics. Today I program computers for a living, but I still keep tabs on the world of science.  The quest for scientific knowledge is in my blood.  

I think science is terribly interesting and productive, telling us a great deal about the world we live in.    The fact that I am typing out this essay on a tiny computer in my hand is a miracle wrought through the deep understanding of many disciplines.   Of all the sciences, most interesting to me is the science of cosmology, or the science of the universe, which informs us on the vast scales of time and space and the origins of pretty much everything.   One cool thing about cosmology is that one must study the very tiny and the very large and understand them together in order to understand the universe.  Cosmologists’ tools are the most amazing things man has ever built- from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, to the Hubble space telescope in orbit around the earth.  Even more amazing than these is the extraordinary mathematics that underlies cosmology and virtually all science.   The bright mathematical star around which cosmologists orbit is the general theory of relativity, a purely intellectual construct that has described the universe so powerfully and predictably that no experiment in 100 years has contradicted it.  (The jury is still out on those recently discovered speedy neutrinos, but I think we’ll find they obey speed limits like everything else).  Think about it: Einstein didn't do any experiments, he just did the math.  The experiments came later, and they showed he was right.

Today is an interesting time in science, because landmark developments of the last several decades.   String theory, in particular, is being explored like a vast new continent and holds a glimmer of hope that we might find a single unified theory that describes everything in the universe.   It is breathtaking and endlessly fascinating.   I truly love it. 

"If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.”

- Stephen Hawking, 1988, A Brief History of Time

“It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”

- Stephen Hawking, 2010, Grand Design

A constant tension exists between science and religion because science keeps pushing back the boundaries of where God might exist.    Thousands of years ago, God was on a mountaintop, but then we climbed the mountain and found nothing there.   Then he was in the clouds, but when we flew above the clouds, there was nothing there either.   In our time, we’ve pushed all the way back to the beginning of time and to the edges of the universe and from the tiniest atoms to superclusters of galaxies, and still no evidence of God.   Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our time, has looked closely at the math and believes there is no need to invoke God to understand why the universe might  exist, and he has made the leap (or suggested it) that if we don’t need to invoke the concept of god, then the simplest conclusion is that there is no God. 

The problem, of course, with a modern scientist’s view of the universe is that most of us have to take their word for it.   This goes back to the math-  with each successive step in our understanding of nature, the math required to understand it has grown commensurately.   The ancient physicists used math that many kids today learn in junior high.   Later advances have required math that is now in the domain of a college education.  String theory invokes math of a most obscure and arcane nature, so complicated that most people would not be able to understand it even they spent the required years to study it.   So, when a modern cosmologist talks about the nature of the universe and God, the vast majority of us do not remotely have the resources to grasp the reasoning of his argument.   If the nature of God is discovered through such means, what hope have we of knowing something about it?

“What if God was one of us?”

-          Alanis Morissette

“And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

-          Jesus Christ (John 17:3)

A popular song from the 90’s asks the question, perhaps disingenuously, “What if God was one of us?”  This is somewhat of an ironic message in light of the truth about Christmas.   2000 years ago a baby was born to a virgin mother in Bethlehem of Judea.  The point that she was a virgin is important because of the implication- that the child had a divine father.   The god of the old testament, Jehovah, was born, lived a human life, and died.  He went through the same life experience, physically and spiritually, that all of us have.    The message of Christmas is that God ­_is_ one of us.   And if he is one of us, we are one of him!    We are literal children of God and not only is it possible to know God, it is our essential nature to desire it, strive for it, and achieve it.  

The skeptic, the scientist, will demand some sort of proof for this.   Fortunately, it is available, and one need not have any special training to see it.   Built into each one of us is the ability to comprehend and know spiritual reality.   This power to know, however, operates on by specific laws, and one must abide by them to come to knowledge.   Jesus taught in very simple terms what these laws are, but unfortunately they are widely disregarded by the world, which is why so many people still look for knowledge of God without finding it.    The practical message of Christmas is that we can put away hatred, envy, lust, deceitfulness,  and selfishness, and we can speak with our God and come to know, in a real and lasting way, that there is a God and that we are his children and that we are intimately connected to him. 

This is my Christmas message to all of you, my friends, and I know of myself it is true.  If you do not know for yourself, I invite you to find out. 



Friday, December 09, 2011

Mormon Temples: Who Can Enter a Temple?

(This is part of a series of posts on Mormon temples)
The first building that Mormons ever built was a temple in Kirtland Ohio:

(Photo by Russ Peterson)

In the dedicatory prayer of this temple, Mormons are given this injunction: “no unclean thing shall be permitted to come into [the temple].” What this means is that once a temple is dedicated, there is a worthiness standard applied to those who desire to enter it. The standard is: to believe in God, keep the commandments, and live our lives in harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ. In practical terms, this means that a person who desires to enter a temple must be a baptized member of the LDS church in good standing, attending church regularly, being chaste, paying tithing, and generally doing their best to live an honest, moral life. Worthiness is determined by way of an interview with ecclesiastical leaders, after which a certificate is issued (a “temple recommend”) which the member may use to enter the temple.
As a rule, Mormons take the worthiness interview very seriously. The interview itself is somewhat of a ritual- it must be repeated every two years and it follows a standard format. Mormons who carry a temple recommend are considered active and devoted members of the church. Roughly a quarter of adult members of the church hold current temple recommends. Members commonly speak about going to the temple as a transformative experience. The preparation often involves the challenging process of leaving behind of old habits such as smoking or drinking and adopting new habits such as paying tithing or becoming fully integrated in the church community.
There is no special invitation required to receive a recommend and go to the temple. Everyone and anyone is invited, so long as they are willing to live according to the standards required for the temple. There is however, an age requirement (over 18) and a person must have been a member at least one year. The reason for those requirements is that the spiritual commitment that goes with attending the temple is serious, and it is important that a person is ready to keep their commitment once it is made. In typical practice, Mormons attend the temple for the first time right before their missions (many Mormons serve two-year missions between the ages of 19 and 25) or right before their marriage if they have not been a missionary.
The worthiness standard has some important implications in a Mormon marriage. One in particular is that attendance at a Mormon wedding ceremony is extremely limited. If family members are not members of the church and/or do not meet the worthiness standard, they cannot attend the ceremony. Typical wedding parties are composed of close family and a few very close friends. This is a sensitive situation, especially for non-members who don’t have the background to understand the beliefs surrounding the temple and the Mormon’s concept of Eternal Marriage. Mormon youth are taught from a young age to anticipate and strive for a marriage in the temple. Youth standards of behavior, spirituality, and dating are crafted around keeping young people worthy to enter the temple. These standards are taught and emphasized continually.
A temple is staffed by a fairly large number of volunteers, or “temple workers.” Temple workers are lay members of the church and have no special qualifications other than that they regularly attend the temple themselves. Workers usually work one full day each week in the temple, and they are not paid. (There are some paid positions for people who work in the temple, but these are non-religious in nature such as a someone who works in the laundry or as a Janitor.) Many workers in the temple are older, retired Mormons. When a person becomes a temple worker, they are specially set apart by the laying on hands so that they will have the authority to do the work in the temple.
In my next post, I will talk about what people do in the temple. As always, please feel free to send me questions about Mormons or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and I will try to put up some thoughtful answers in my blog.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Some Truths About Software Development

A friend of mine pointed me to a talk by Greg Wilson, an author of software engineering books. The point of his talk is that there is a lot of bogus claims and practices around software that aren’t backed up with data (for instance, the usefulness of UML in code design). He then listed several rules of thumb that *are* backed up by data and many of these rang true with me in my 20 or so years of experience. Here they are:

Adding 25% more features doubles the complexity.

Project failure tends to come from poor estimation and unstable requirements.

If you have to rewrite more than 20% of a component, start from scratch.

Reading code (code review) is the best technique known for fixing bugs. Caveat #1: Most value comes from the first review during the first hour. Caveat #2: The most code a person can really review is ~200 lines in an hour.

Software reflects the organization that wrote it. Case in point: A Microsoft study of Windows Vista showed that fault rates were most dependent on organizational chart distance!

Lines of code is the strongest metric. Other more complicated metrics tend to scale with lines of code.

Nobody uses UML.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Mormon Temples: What is a temple?

(This is the first part of a series of posts on the temple)

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, “churches” are different than “temples.” A church is a building where we hold Sunday worship services (sacrament meetings), youth activities, dances, sports events, devotionals, scouting courts of honor, dinners, receptions, etc. etc. Church buildings are open to the public and anyone is invited to meetings we hold there. There are probably on the order of 10,000 LDS church buildings around the world. Typical church buildings look like this:

Temples, on the other hand, are rare and very special. There are only about 140 LDS temples in the world. They are constructed with great care out of the finest materials available and they are dedicated for special worship activity that is distinct and separate than a standard Sunday service. ( In fact, temples are closed on Sundays.)

Here are some pictures of temples:

Salt Lake City

San Diego

Hong Kong

In the temple, Mormons perform various religious rites, or “ordinances.” An example of an ordinance would be baptism. Mormons don’t talk about the specifics of these ordinances outside of the temple, not because such things are secret, but because they are sacred. Put another way, if we simply talked about temple rites any time and any place, these things would lose their air of reverence and dignity. If you know a Mormon, it is useful to understand that it is deeply upsetting to them to see the sacred things of the temple paraded in public and/or ridiculed.

When temples are first built, they are considered regular buildings until they are dedicated by the president of the church (“The Prophet”) or someone delegated by the President. Before that time, there is an “open house” period where general members of the public may enter the temple and see the inside. At a temple dedication, the temple and surrounding grounds are filled will local members of the church. This is a time greeted with joy and celebration by Mormons.

In my next post, I will talk about who may enter temples after they are dedicated. As always, please feel free to send me questions about Mormons or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and I will try to put up some thoughtful answers in my blog.